Saturday, January 28, 2012

Deaf Dining: Mozzeria

Today marked probably one of the most unique and interesting restaurant experiences that I've had. A friend of mine had seen the following article about Mozzeria, a new pizza restaurant in San Francisco's Mission district, and, along with another friend, today we decided to go:

The cool thing about Mozzeria is that it's owned by a deaf couple, most of the employees are deaf themselves, and nearly all of them sign. The two friends I went with today are both hearing, but both sign rather well (both have been former roommates of mine :) ), and I think the three of us were all excited to see what a signing dining environment would be like.

I admit, walking into this restaurant and immediately having the hostess sign to us, then raise a printed paper in case we were hearing non-signers and hadn't understood, was a pretty amazing moment for me personally. I felt myself shedding much of the communication anxiety I have when I go out in public, especially out to eat when I know I will need to interact with a waiter. Talking with hearing waiters is usually fine for me, and I've done it for years, but I do miss things they say - when they go on about the special of the day or ask other unexpected questions, I'm thrown off and rely on my hearing friends to fill in for me and/or translate. Today I was pleased to discover how reassuring that added measure of communicative clarity felt with sign. Is this the way the world feels for the hearing, so much more open and empowering?

Our brunch/lunch at Mozzeria was in many ways a typical eating-out experience: we took our menus, ordered, ate, and paid the bill amidst our own conversation, interactions with the waiter, etc. But the fresh surprise I felt, despite myself, every time a waiter or other employee reappeared and started signing to me - signing! - made me feel more alive to, as well as relaxed in, my surroundings than usual. Even though I've long detached myself from the Deaf world for a variety of reasons, the truth is that I never feel more at home than when the people around me are signing. I saw busboys and chefs walk by signing across the room to each other. A few of them had hearing aids. Several of the tables were filled with deaf people, and one older lady waved over and started a conversation. I can't remember the last time I interacted casually with other diners at a restaurant. I don't know if it's at all typical for hearing people (minus a very odd extended conversation my family once had with a total stranger in a Chinese restaurant in DC), but for me chance interactions with hearing strangers in public places are rare. At one point, the deaf group left and a hearing party came in to replace them at the table beside ours, and the three of us joked that now it was they who were out of place. Not that Mozzeria did not cater to non-signing hearing people - our waiter was hearing and spoke as well as signed, and the restaurant ran just like any other. But the vibe itself was different.

All of the above points were reiterated for me when, after our stint at Mozzeria, we decided to head over to another place for dessert. This was in some ways another highlight of the day (since after all the dessert was composed of New Mexico-style green chile apple pie! in San Francisco!), but ordering from the hearing woman behind the counter, zoning in on her face and nevertheless suffering a bit of a communicative bobble when she asked if I wanted my pie a la mode, showed me how nice it had been to go to a restaurant so centered around sign. If only once.

Now I hope I can go back sometime - and maybe take another hearing friend or two :)

Thursday, January 26, 2012

It Is What It Is

It's funny, right after posting about that forwarded petition on audism (which left me brooding over the whole idea of Deaf isolation/hearing-world immersion), I got myself dressed up and headed over to a networking event on campus. It was hosted by a women's group that I'm involved with, and although I'm never quite excited to go to those things, I figured I'd resort to the old standby: suck it up, go and be seen, and try to handle it all as graciously as possible. But when I got there I quickly found that it wasn't going to be my kind of night. The room was loud and crowded, full of strangers talking in groups, many of them too difficult to lipread even if I could focus amidst the noise. The CI was more of a distraction than a help. On top of that, I was informed that there would be an assortment of activities and guest speakers for a fair deal of the time - not something I was prepared to handle at that time of night without an interpreter. A bit deflated but not exactly surprised, I left early. My night did go on to better and more useful things, but the thought racing through my mind as I walked back to my room was, No wonder it's so easy to retreat into Deaf culture.

Not that that's an option for me. It isn't, nor would I want it to be. Still, I do have my moments when it seems that the hearing world isn't at all made for me - a sentiment that I know resonates with other deaf and hard-of-hearing people. As I've gotten older, I've gotten better at maneuvering through these disconnected moments and figuring out how to avoid them. A lot of that involves advance planning (for interpreters and other accommodations), some self-advocacy, and sheer self-knowledge. The unexpected does come up, regardless, the moments in which I find myself stuck and really not able to communicate as I'd like to. And, as uncomfortable as the entire rhetoric of Deaf culture can make me, I'll be honest in admitting that during those moments it can be easy to think of groups of D/deaf people with more fondness than groups of hard-to-understand hearing people, at least in the abstract. It's easy to want to be isolationist. It's easy to be hurt and angry simultaneously at everyone and at no one in particular. It's easy to want to reject the system that seems not to care about your needs, much less provide for them. It's easy to want to band together with someone - anyone - in defiance of the linguistic and communicative barrier that accompanies hearing loss.

All of this makes sense to me in one tumultuous, emotionally chaotic moment. And then I take a deep breath, count my blessings (of which there are many!), and engage in some form of the serenity prayer. This does not define me. There are ways around the barrier, just as there have been scores of times before. And, sometimes, it just is what it is.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Audism? Not Really.

I just got the following petition message in a forwarded email from an on-campus disability awareness group I'm involved with. It's a pretty biased look at some (in my view) exciting strides in hearing-loss research, but it's a typical enough response from Deaf advocates that I thought I'd post it here. Just for the record, I generally don't agree with the big-D deaf community's views on "audism," maybe because I'm not culturally Deaf myself. Audism, if you want to use that word, does exist in the forms of deaf people not being given the consideration and opportunities that hearing people have, but honestly research such as the following is intended to help, not harm. I'm all for stem cell research - I think it's beyond amazing. And, once again, hearing is a wonderful thing too. And, yet once again, it doesn't have to be either-or.

Although this raises the question all over again of whether deaf people should choose between being deaf and being hearing. Jury's out on that one. I've written about it on this blog before, but honestly whenever I return to this issue I get a little tired of thinking about it in such polarized, dogmatic terms.

Any thoughts or responses, bring them on.

Stop Stem Cell Experiment on Deaf Babies

Sign The Petition to Stop FDA's Audism

The FDA has recently approved stem cell experimentation on Deaf infants at the Children's Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston, Texas. The experiment is to include up to 10 Deaf newborns and infants (6 weeks to 18 months old) to eradicate their being Deaf. The FDA's approval promotes the hidden cultural and linguistic genocide on the Deaf infants and is part of the eugenics to wipe out the Deaf community and our beautiful and precious American Sign Language, which is used by the ASL Deaf community and is one of the top languages studied in the USA.

The Deaf infants are human beings and have their human rights to be created, accepted, loved and supported. The FDA approved experiment will include repeated MRI screenings, possible sedation, injection of untested stem cells for that age population - all which carry long lasting risks and implications. All of this will be done in the name of CURING the infants of a "condition" of which is an ethnicity. (See Lane, Pillard, and Hedeberg)

Being Deaf is not a life-threatening condition and does not cause premature death nor does it bring immeasurable suffering. In fact it does the opposite. Many Deaf people who have American Sign Language and English as part of their life attest to being happy. If the collaborators of the study want a cure - the FDA, the Blood Cord Registry, and the Children's Memorial Hermann Hospital need look no further than ensuring that the infant has access to ASL, English, and Deaf culture. Audism (the belief that to be hearing and/or behave as a hearing person is superior to being Deaf) is the problem, not being Deaf. It is similar to the attitudes that affect minorities like Hispanic people, African-American people, like that of the "Stepford Wives" syndrome -- creating the perfect white, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, hearing baby.

It is imperative that the collaborators of this study (which all stand to have monetary gains from this experiment) be held accountable and that the funding and future profits behind this unethical and inhumane study be fully disclosed and examined.

Sign this petition to tell the President and your Congressional Representatives to stop this horrific experiment.

NOTE: This petition is set up through, which is a part of  By signing this petition, you will be added to's e-mail list which you can unsubscribe.  Our Alert is not an endorsement of, we are promoting this petition to fight Audism.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Listening is Language!

So my further posts on 2012 resolutions never materialized. To be continued, I guess.

For the moment, I'm just so astounded by how listening and language go hand-in-hand, at least at my current stage in the CI journey. Two auditory therapy sessions I've had in the last two weeks have hit it home for me just how much progress I've made in terms of piecing together sounds when those sounds come in the form of full sentences and phrases. That's the way listening is intended to be, right? Occasionally we hear and discern single words, but more often than not we are listening to the constant flow of the world around us. Sound doesn't happen in a bubble, a vacuum, in which individual words are discrete and isolated. And now I'm doing a better job of hearing that stream of speech and feeling comfortable with it, grabbing onto each piece as it comes, letting the whole thing fit together in my mind. Like magic, honestly.

Let me repeat that last bit: I'm hearing that stream and feeling comfortable with it. Haha! How amazing is that? I still clearly, clearly remember the days (not too long ago!) when the thought of listening to anything beyond one or two words terrified me. It felt impossible - really, it was impossible. During speech therapy in the first eighteen years of my life, my SLP and I would regularly do some base-level listening skills exercises, to develop and use the little hearing that I did have. These exercises came in the form of drills involving the same sets of words over and over again (baseball, bluebird, ice cream - anyone who has a hearing loss and has been subjected to these words in the auditory testing chamber can certainly relate!), some low-level questions about myself (what is your name? what is your address?), and some others that I can't remember, mostly because there wasn't much space to be creative. I never progressed too far beyond these exercises, which after a while we undertook mostly for maintenance and to pair speech development with some level of listening awareness. At that point, I couldn't imagine what the world of listening felt like beyond bluebird, bathtub, sailboat.

But now something ironic has happened. My brain, which already has its connections firing and ready to go with language (something that develops along with listening in hearing children - boy, has my own process taken a different path), is now jumping on that language/listening partnership with surprising gusto. When I drill minimal pair words, or any single words at all, I continue to feel less than confident. These words and drills do exist in a vacuum, a space in which the dynamic, interactive, problem-solving and language-using skills of my brain have no chance to strut their stuff. Single-word drill exercises rely heavily, if not quite solely, on my still underdeveloped capacity to hear something and have the appropriate neurons fire straight to an appreciable meaning. With one word and no linguistic context, that's a pretty hard thing to do. I overanalyze, return to thinking about phonemes and speech production, and end up feeling stuttering and paralyzed. So, instead, the exercises that I've done involving sentences or linguistic phrases (even when these fall into a wide-open set!) have recently become my favorites. They speak to what I already know how to do, but allow me to use my newfound listening skills to exhibit those existing grammatical and language-based proclivities.

A few examples. Exercises with my auditory therapist that involve sentences, stories, questions, and interactive language-based listening skills have recently become so, so much easier than they used to be. Instead of this unintelligible stream of sound that whizzes by too quickly for me to grasp, making my brain panic and scream and want to revert to single-word drills where I will at least have only a few phonemes to make sense of, I've somehow arrived at the point where I can proceed much more methodically. The words seem to go by slower instead of at warp speed, because I am able to make more sense of them when they do come. My grammatical sense kicks in: there's the subject, verb, pronoun, conjunction. If I miss one or another, I hold that spot in my mind until I have enough auditory information to go back and fill in the blanks, matching the rough sketch of what I might have heard with something more precise. And, in the process of filling in those blanks (something remarkably like lipreading! lifelong skills ftw!) I actually end up learning. The next time I hear that missed word, I jump on it much quicker. There are fewer gaps in general these days as I expand my auditory memory and become more skilled at grabbing words out of the air. The best days are when I don't need to think analytically at all, but when the words simply - come. Though I of course still get stuck, sentences like that are becoming more frequent.

All this auditory information would have been unfathomable to me a few months ago, let alone years. And in my daily interactions with people, I find that my mind latches onto phrases that others say to me at close range while passing. "Have a nice day," "see you later," "sounds good," "how are you?", and so forth are now old friends in my conversational listening world. I'd likely catch more than that if I tried, or had to, or put in the time to familiarize myself with these people's voices. I'm a little giddy just thinking of all this conversational speech. The new frontiers that have opened up, and the new and wonderful clarity that I'm discovering with the CI, where language just comes in and sounds and feels natural, like I've visually known it for years but yet never discovered in the specific mode of hearing.

I really can't describe this newfound liking for listening-cum-language skills or how much it means to me. Listening is language! Just like language on the page or signed in the air or anywhere else! Ahhh what a concept!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Resolutions, Part I: Listening as Habit

First post of 2012! This is a little strange, seeing as 2012 is going to be a banner year for a lot of things, and it's here already. College graduation, figuring out what to do with my life - compared with that, my two-year anniversary with the CI is exciting but a bit less prominent.

I've been reflecting on life during this holiday break, as I suppose many people tend to do at this time of year, and although much of it is too banal or confusing to put down in words, I've noticed two themes in my thoughts relevant to this blog. The two resolutions I'd like to make in 2012, pertaining to deafness/hearing loss/hearing, are to push myself and my hearing more, while also accepting and even embracing the things I cannot change, and to clearly ask more of other (hearing) people. Let me expand a bit on the first part. It's complex enough, and maybe my reflections on the other pieces will follow in future posts.

One and a half years later, my biggest challenge with the CI is the fact that my brain is still not accustomed to relying on hearing. I literally run into my issues of plasticity every day: it's struck me how much easier this would be to do as a child. Children who are implanted early and who know little of deafness do not approach the entire experience with any preconceived notions. Their brains are young, pliable, and willing to accept and integrate the presence of sound. Throughout this whole journey, my maturity (and admittedly my analytical mind) have been key assets in helping me progress, but those factors still aren't the same as a naive mind that embraces neural changes with arms wide open. Hearing, for me, is still stuck at the same phase as being a non-native learner of a foreign language. The sound enters my brain and I stop, suspended for a moment, translating it into intelligible thoughts, words, and associations. Gato is cat. Id est is that is. EeeEeerRRrerr is the vacuum cleaner, or a car, or someone's voice calling my name. (Okay, so this process is currently more tied into linguistic comprehension than environmental sounds. Those are coming more and more automatically.) Once I know what I've heard, or think I do, then I reenter real life. The problem is that oftentimes it's easy enough to dismiss those noises as they come in, simply because the process of cognitively figuring out what they are requires too much brainpower (or because I honestly don't know, and there's no one else around to ask, or I don't feel comfortable asking). Listening, really listening, is something I need to remind myself to do. It's still a translation. It doesn't always happen automatically.

I've been reminded of this time and time again while I've been home. I've already found that, when I'm at auditory therapy or otherwise focusing on listening for an extended period of time, it takes me a good ten to twenty minutes to really warm up and get into the groove of hearing. (And then I get tired. Of course. Shelf life of optimal auditory concentration is short.) While I've been home, my mother, crafty as she is, has taken to positioning herself so that I cannot see what she's saying. When I try to turn my head or motion for her to come where I can see her, she refuses. And then she speaks.

I stop. Sometimes I ask her to repeat, but not always. In silence, I stare ahead of me for so long that I wonder if I really understood anything. But the mental wheels are only turning, turning the words over like pebbles in my hand, experimenting with what they feel like. Sometimes I search my mental dictionary, grasp after context, try to intellectually work backwards and guess what she could have been talking about, but now more often than not I just let my unconscious work. It's an odd feeling, vacant but at the same time teeming with anticipation. And then - the words come. The entire sentence. Nearly ten or twenty seconds later - an eternity in conversational terms - I deliver what she said, and then come up with my own answer. "Yes, get me a glass of wine - white, please."

I can do it. The words are there. I almost never miss, within the space of one sentence. "You can do it," my mother tells me, poking my shoulder. So why aren't I hearing and grasping more things, more often? I still imagine what it would be like to overhear conversations, to constantly pick up on words I don't see.

It's a question of concentration, of mental resources, and most of all of habit. If I can see someone's face, or move so that I can see better, it's as if the newfound hearing-reliant part of my brain switches off. It does help out, but it's only the supporting actor. When I can't see, that supporting actor is too timid to assume the main role, or doesn't even think of jumping into the spotlight. And if I'm not given time to process, if I'm not speaking with a friendly and understanding close friend or family member, listening is a moot point anyway. Right now, I could probably have a decent base-level conversation in quiet with a familiar voice, but it'd take me a long time to think, translate, and then respond. Most conversations, unfortunately, are not like that. Most people want effective communication, something that at this point I can accomplish better by sight than by sound. (If they really cared about crossing over to my level, wouldn't more of them learn sign language?) And so my brain goes on relying mostly on seeing.

This is an interesting problem, and it's one that I'd like to continue to explore throughout the new year. Here's to listening, to learning to really listen, and to keeping close the kinds of people who will enable me to do that. And here's to that giddy rush I get when I sit there, inside my mind, and realize that I have understood.